Can Turkey Teach Us Something About Democracy?

A Seattle poster exchange with Istanbul looks at which direction each country is going.

Illustration by Marie Hausauer

Seattle’s Daniel Smith specializes in bringing cities together through posters. Since he visited Cuba in 2006 and saw the remarkable artistic poster designs there, he’s had a passion for putting together shows that pair art from Seattle with that of other far-flung cities. The posters might be highbrow or lowbrow; advertise movies, concerts, or plays; and range from abstract to vividly literal. As for the cities represented: the more strained the relationship with the United States, and the more maligned the country and its people, the better. The 2007 Seattle/Havana poster show was followed a year later by Seattle/Tehran, then Seattle/Moscow in 2009.

Last year Smith put together a show featuring works from Seattle, Havana, and Tehran, nicknamed the SHT show. At the time, the curators joked that all they were missing was an “I”; now they’ll have it. Smith recently put together a new exhibit in Istanbul, to run there December 1–30 and in Seattle next year. The show features 90 posters showcasing the work of 60 designers from both cities. Smith talked with Seattle Weekly about his goals for the show. (The views expressed by Smith are his and do not necessarily reflect those of his collaborators).

After doing the Tehran and Havana shows, how did you decide on Istanbul? I went to Istanbul three years ago and I gave a talk at a university there. I got a chance to meet some design professors and students and had a great time. That was just a couple months before the [pro-democracy] Gezi Park protests, and at the time I was starting to see a lot of issues in terms of censorship that had popped up. I’d been to Istanbul before, and this was new, the kind of crackdown that was happening in terms of journalism and free speech. That’s how I approached the show initially … to bring some kind of hope from our side, where we’re seeing this crackdown from [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in terms of personal freedoms in Turkey. With the election of Trump, that’s sort of changing my perspective on this trip. There’s a lot of lessons for us to learn about what could be in our future.

Speaking of which, what can the situation in Turkey teach us, given that they’ve been dealing with an authoritarian leader for a while? I think for one, it can show us the danger of not fighting back, and not fighting back early enough to make a difference. What we’ve seen there with the failed coup and the purge in the aftermath shows us how extremely difficult it can be to change who’s in power once that power is solidified. And we are headed down that path. I also feel like, in terms of what we can learn, especially from this community of artists and designers, is how do they cope? How do they deal with this, how do they express themselves?

Iran and Cuba were and still are seen as the enemy to some extent. I’m curious if there’s any difference doing a show about Turkey, which is definitely seen as “the other,” but not necessarily as Enemy #1 in the same way? Right—in theory they are our allies, so it is very different in that respect. But there is the religious aspect. I think the fear of Muslims, which I think was radically driven by Trump in this country, is akin to being against Jews or being against blacks—I mean it’s this crazy response by somebody in power in the United States. And so I hope that the show can point out that regardless of race, there’s so much more that’s in common between us than is different.

And also to show that we can work together on issues from global warming to prejudice. As a designer I feel like I have an immediate tribe or a lot of friendship within these communities. I’m just a guy who’s been doing this. There’s no organization behind me. Occasionally I get arts grants, but for the most part it’s just me. It’s me reaching out to people in other countries finding partners and figuring out ways to work together to do something interesting. I sort of feel like, if I can do it, there’s a lot of other people who can do it.

So what city is next? Or maybe that’s not how you think about it? That’s often the way I think about it, and every time I do a show that’s one of the first questions, and I think “Oh, my God, let me just enjoy this one, because it’s so much work!” But I went to China earlier this year and I was able to meet with designers from Beijing and Shanghai, and I was excited about the possibility of an exchange there. But I don’t know. I am, in the face of this recent election, thinking about how could it be truly different, how could it be something domestically, and I don’t know if that’s the next issue exactly. It might be a different kind of exchange. So that’s where my head is at.

This interview has been edited for length.

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